Driving Confidence and Creative Fusion with The AA
The AA's group brand director talks about the importance of humor in marketing, building strong agency partnerships and the future of the brand's 'It’s OK, I’m with The AA' campaign
11 September 2023
What makes someone choose a career in marketing? And - perhaps a more interesting question - what makes someone actually good at it?
For Will Harrison, the group brand director of The AA, there are two elements that answer to both of those questions. First, he's a man with a rather keen interest in understanding human behaviour. Second, this interest aligns neatly with his love for English Literature and Art, where the combination of words and visuals is a powerful form of expression.
Harrison's expertise in brand strategy, identity, and entertaining advertising naturally stems from this passion. He enjoys taking on challenging brand initiatives, excelling in decoding commercial objectives and identifying target audience preferences. But Harrison also knows how to create advertising that entertains and raises a smile. And we want more of that, please.
So we sat down with Harrison to unravel his transition from the tech/telecoms industry (he's worked in senior marketing roles at Carphone Warehouse and 3) to motoring services. We delve into the lessons from his agency experience and unearth the playful genesis of the 'It’s OK I’m with the AA' campaign.
Transitioning to the AA from a tech background marked a significant shift in categories. How has your tech background influenced your current role at the AA?
Will Harrison: Clearly, there are different dynamics in every company due to size, growth ambitions and people. Every job is a different learning experience. I would say that tech, and telecoms specifically, is quite fast moving so it helps you develop ways of working effectively in a reactive environment with a good dose of pragmatism based on broader business challenges, like operational costs for example. But the key things I look to do are the same – try to treat the business as if it’s your own (understand what makes it survive and grow), champion balancing short- and long-term commercial ambitions, champion brand as a growth lever and don’t be afraid to question, challenge and transform the status quo with a passion and directness at all levels. People will most likely value your inputs or at the bare minimum, your passion and drive.
Having started your career on the agency side, how did that experience assist you as you moved to the brand side?
It was fundamental. Working in a small agency with the founders – shout out to Pete Brocklebank and Craig Penn at what was ‘Bluemoon Marketing’ – and getting my hands dirty with client problems as well as understanding the way the agency operated and made money really gave me a sense of what business is all about. And the power of a strong agency/client relationship in unlocking great partnerships and commercial outcomes for all concerned. When I then went to a mid-size agency I found there was more ego and politics that got in the way to be honest. I missed the ownership and ability to make positive change so I had a feeling client-side would be better suited to me. It has helped me also strive for better agency relationships as a client – treating them as true partners by trusting them, hiding away unnecessary broader client challenges, and letting them focus entirely on what their expertise can bring – whilst also pushing them and calling them out when things can be better.
Take us through the genesis of the new campaign from The Gate, ‘It’s OK I’m with the AA'. How did it come together and why did you go down this route?
All the ‘It’s OK’ work is a tactical output of the broader strategic work. It all started with establishing the ‘what’ (group business objectives), the ‘who’ (volume and value market + customer opportunities) and the ‘why’ (the brand purpose). That then led to a brand re-positioning to reflect why The AA creates confidence for drivers, now and for the future, to deliver on the commercial objectives short and long term. The Gate pitched the brand platform of ‘Always Ahead’ that positions the brand as anticipating what the UK driver needs to create the confidence – backed up by customer insights. I loved its simplicity and relatability not just at each product level but also across the whole suite of driving products to reflect our driving world. The AA even used it as far back as the 1920s, so it’s built into our brand DNA. ‘It’s OK, I’m with The AA’ was then the expression of this ‘Always Ahead’ unshakeable confidence that when you’re with The AA, you’re OK – whatever the driving situation, whatever the vehicle. Kudos to The Gate’s strategic and creative team, the route felt so strong in its beautiful simplicity – it had an ability to stretch across more emotive serious customer interactions as well as more hyperbolic ones for advertising, as well as the potential to play a role in the UK’s cultural driving conversation – a bit like ‘should have gone to SpecSavers’.
Humour is making a comeback in the marketing realm, what are your thoughts on this, especially working within a category which is usually serious?
It is all about being distinctive and differentiated as a brand in your category (and beyond) for talkability and remaining front of mind with a wide range of people. We have a uniquely brilliant sense of humour in the UK that I think we should embrace and be proud of, from The Fast Show to Trigger Happy TV, to People Just Do Nothing. As a result, I have always been a fan of humour in gaining cut-through and engaging with the UK, particularly as advertising has less dwell time in an increasingly busy digital world.
From working with Keith Lemon at Carphone Warehouse, to a whispering Lewis Capaldi for Relaxing Stuff at Three Mobile, to this new ‘It’s OK’ work, I have always championed humour. We tested creative routes as part of our approach and found the UK wanted us to dial up the humour rather than tone it down – which we were delighted to do. You will see this playful side coming through both in our main advertising film but also in our OOH with street fighter and upcoming social media work with Kurupt FM.
What advice would you have for marketers to get the best out of their agency partners?
1. Build and create trust (and back their expertise)
2. Provide useful business context and objectives but shelter from unnecessary broader client problems
3. Push each other, whatever the discipline – in strategy, insights and creative outputs.
What’s next for the AA and what are your plans for the brand?
I want everyone to know The AA as the brand that gives UK drivers unshakeable confidence, now and for the future. Whatever the driving scenario, whatever the vehicle. I want first choice consideration as a superior breakdown provider as well as increased awareness and consideration of all of our other products and services from learning to drive, to buying or leasing a car ,to breakdown, accidents and insurance, to service, maintenance and repair. As for the marketing communications, I can see ‘It’s OK, I’m with The AA’ running in different guises for years to come – informing and entertaining the lovely people of the UK.